What is to be ‘saved’ in the Russian culture?

In the West it’s still common sense: keep politics and arts separate, so don’t cancel the Russian culture. The Ukrainian theolog and philosopher Oleksiy Panych, who had to flee Kyiv because of the Russian bombardments, argues in a different way. Russian culture is not so innocent as it pretends.

By Oleksiy Panych

The culture of Muscovite Rus was formed on the basis of two heterogeneous sources. The basics of religious and artistic culture came to Moscow from south-eastern Europe (Byzantium, Balkans) via Kyiv. The basics of political and legal culture came to Moscow from the Ulus of Jochi, better known as ‘the Golden Horde’. As a result, the layer of the Russian ‘spiritual culture’ became a recognizably European façade that covered essentially non-European state infrastructure.

Poisoned mix

This Russian cultural mixture formed a contradictory whole: an imperial political culture constantly poisoned Russian spirituality. Hence the sincere laudation of their empire by Pushkin and Tyutchev, the fanatic antipolonism of Dostoyevsky, the jingoism of early Berdyaev, etc.

To those who were scared by or sick of the imperial intoxication of the Russian spiritual culture were offered a wide range of options of internal political alibi. Like: ‘Is that my fault? I am a small man; the state commits some crimes somewhere, but I have nothing to do with this; I even do my best to hide from it! Why punish me?!’.

Among the models of such alibi’s, one could mention ‘The Cathedral Folk’ by Leskov, numerous Chekhov’s characters, escapism of late Leo Tolstoy, etc.

Today a number of relatively conscientious representatives of the Russian ‘intelligentsia’ – not hundreds, but many thousands – seek a refuge in such kind of alibi.

Finally, besides imperial intoxication and internal political alibi, Russian culture knows one more and the most uncommon type: consciously anti-imperial, with simultaneous denial of internal alibi. The last aspect is best seen in early Bakhtin (‘non-alibi in being’), the first one in Chaadayev, Saltykov-Shchedrin, late Berdyaev, etc.

Cultural hypocrisy

This general typology of interrelations between Russian political and spiritual culture shows that the calls of Russian and some European public figures ‘to save Russian culture from sanctions’, since it is allegedly ‘not Putin but something quite different’, contain a bit of truth and a good deal of hypocrisy.

The anti-imperial type of Russian culture does not require anything but support. The only thing that its representatives have to admit is: Imperium Russicum delendum est, Russian empire is to be destroyed. This historical task has not been completed yet.

To those who hide in ‘internal alibi’ one could only wish to find in the process of inevitable imperial destruction such a state unit that they would accept as their own and assume conscious personal responsibility for all its actions. Currently they are just ‘lumber’ worth nothing but pity.

Moreover, they are passive accomplices in the crimes of their empire, as they do nothing to oppose the ongoing evil committed by their state both externally and internally. In the words of the German theolog Martin Niemöller, they are guilty in the crimes of their state simply because of ‘das Nichtstun, das Nichtreden, das Nicht-Verantwortlich-Fühlen’ – ‘doing nothing, saying nothing, feeling responsible for nothing’.

And those who have consciously sided with their empire already share the full burden of responsibility for all its atrocities.

Quick scan

If you want to learn quickly which of the three types you deal with in person, ask him/her a classical question: ‘Whose is Crimea?’. One would respond ‘Russian’, another would say ‘Ukrainian’, yet another would give you a sort of evasive answer that essentially comes to ‘I am a small man, this is not my question’.

The main thing that is unacceptable now is to pull out of the sanctions the imperial mode of Russian culture as needing support right now, irrespectively of any actions of the Russian state. As to those who hide in ‘internal alibi’, they should also be awakened by sanctions: this is one of the conscious purposes of their implementation.

Of course, today we can listen to Wagner’s music without recalling either his anti-Semitism or how Nazis were inspired by his melodies. We can watch Leni Riefenstahl’s movies feeling amazed by her cinematographic mastery. The same way the imperial mode of Russian culture, in its best manifestations, will become a part of the cultural heritage of humanity.

But only .… when the empire that gave birth to it will become past following the path of the Third Reich.